Sectarianism, Salafism and the Latent Terror Threat in Saudi Arabia

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 11



On  April 23, 37 individuals were killed in state-mandated executions across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, each accused of terror-related crimes; at least 33 of those killed were Shia Muslims (Arab News, April 23). The individual charges have not been released, with officials only offering vague platitudes, such as accusing the individuals of adopting indeterminate extremist ideologies.

Two days prior to the executions, four Sunni jihadists armed with automatic rifles and unsophisticated explosives attempted to besiege a government facility in al-Zulfi, approximately 155 miles north of Riyadh (Al-Arabiya, April 21). Videos shared via social media showed the neutralized bodies of the attackers lying near their vehicle. Three police officers were wounded during the incident. Despite the attack being largely unsuccessful, with minimal casualties or damage, Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the incident via its news agency Amaq (Al-Araby, April 22).

The Salafist-Saudi Relationship          

Historically, Salafism-Wahhabism—the strict interpretation of Islam with a focus on orthodox practices which underpins IS’ ideology—has been interwoven within elements of the Saudi community. Saudi state-level conservatism and embedded socioeconomic and cultural factors help provide a potential path to jihadism. Although this is a simplistic summary, as radicalization is a complex and non-linear phenomenon, the 3,000 Saudi nationals who traveled to Iraq and Syria are an embodiment of the potential for radicalization in the Kingdom.

Additionally, IS has had a clear interest in expanding jihadism in Saudi Arabia since its inception. For IS leadership, the Kingdom’s close relationship with the United States is an example of how the monarchy is an ‘apostate’ regime, fraternizing globally with ‘kafirs’ (unbelievers). Locations such as Medina and Mecca have a hugely symbolic attraction for IS. As bastions of Islam, a caliphate with Mecca at its heart is the ultimate jihadist fantasy.

The al-Zulfi attack was principally ineffective, but the IS claim of responsibility indicates a multi-faceted motivation. Primarily, the attack was a piece of propaganda. The claim of responsibility is a reminder to both the global and domestic community of the group’s nascent presence in Saudi Arabia and is consistent with IS’ current transition from a proto-state to a regional insurgency.

The targeting pattern and execution method follows the modus operandi of recent IS attacks, as leaders are encouraging near-sighted attacks against Middle Eastern regimes. Fostering instability and feeding off the results is a core strategy of IS in its current incarnation. This has been reinforced by the re-emergence of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video recently released by Amaq. Reassurance that Baghdadi is alive is enough to solidify support amongst IS’ followers and ensure local jihadist groups are receptive to Baghdadi’s messaging, including in Saudi Arabia (Middle East Eye, April 29).

Sectarian Tensions

Saudi Arabia’s recent history has been punctuated by sectarianism between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority community. In 2015, IS claimed an attack on a Shia mosque in Qatif governorate which killed 21 (Saudi Gazette, May 23, 2015). Sowing sectarian discord in the Kingdom has long been on the IS agenda. The Shia community is primarily concentrated in the Eastern Province, and reports of Shia extremism in the area have been frequent in recent years.

As seen through the execution of the 33 supposed Shia terrorists, the government is quick to brand any acts of Shia aggression as terrorism, however negligible the offense. Shia-led terrorism is largely linked to domestic grievances, such as perceptions of marginalization and discrimination. Attacks have been consistently linked to criminal activity rather than to an embedded ideological stance—frequently, those accused of Shia terrorism have significant criminal records (Asharq Al-Awsat, April 8).

The majority of attacks target Saudi security personnel or sites in Eastern Province, with attackers eschewing more indiscriminate actions. These groups have no apparent links to international groups, but the government is quick to claim Iranian influence—a potential rise in sectarianism is a small price to pay for further geopolitical points scoring against Iran.

The Saudi Response

Following the executions, Saudi Deputy Defence Minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, reiterated the Kingdom’s commitment to combating terrorism (The National, April 25). Policies are in place to deter domestic radicalization.  One element of the Vision 2030 program is to clamp down on online radicalization, while the controversial re-education prisons remain operational (The Journal, December 3, 2017). Critics have claimed these facilities, ostensibly advertised as terrorism rehabilitation clinics, are used as detention sites for government critics incarcerated on spurious terror charges.

The executions themselves are more than just geopolitical brinkmanship, as they act as a deterrent to both Sunni and Shia extremists. Despite the worries regarding returning fighters—over 760 are known to have returned—the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP) has significant networks, domestically and abroad, to monitor suspected terrorists and prevent high-impact attacks.

In 2017, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud announced that the domestic intelligence and counterterrorism apparatus would be consolidated into a new state security agency, placing homeland defense within the remit of the monarchy (Gulf News, July 21, 2017). Despite concerns from international partners over the ramifications of this move, the Saudi security forces remain some of the most sophisticated and capable in the Middle East.

The IS goal of a caliphate with Mecca at its center is utopian, and further away now than at any point since the group’s creation. The security forces have proved adept at tracking returning fighters and ensuring no significant IS cells can form in Saudi Arabia, even in the most remote areas with minimal state governance. There is little indication that many of those who have returned remain operational.

IS leaders would have to send a significant amount of resources to Saudi Arabia to establish a significant and practical presence. Sectarian tensions are evident, but the group does not have the bandwidth necessary to extensively exploit the divides. The al-Zulfi attack is a reminder that small IS factions remain committed to conducting operations, but Saudi Arabia retains the capacity, networks and, perhaps crucially, support of Western administrations, to nullify any significant domestic expansion of organized Sunni or Shia extremism.